Universities are right at the heart of economic and social development and regeneration. In Ireland for example, most foreign direct investment attracted by the state and its agencies is now connected with high value university research. Regions of the country without a university proclaim that they cannot be developed successfully unless they get one. As the government tries to contain the ranks of the unemployed and to re-skill those looking for work, universities are seen as key. So why do we read stuff like this, as in last weekend’s Sunday Independent? Here are universities as seen by the paper’s Eamon Delaney:
‘In fact, our universities illustrate everything that is wrong with the Celtic Tiger. From being the envy of other countries, and a hothouse of entrepreneurial and intellectual talent, our third-level sector has bankrupted itself with high salaries, poor productivity and minimal periods of actual lecturing.’
Leaving aside for now the question of salaries, none of this is true, even remotely. And yet it is clear that it is a perspective shared by a good many people. Universities have helped to mitigate some of the worst effects of the recession, and have been willing to take on more students for less money. ‘Productivity’ has increased dramatically.
So why is this not recognised? Why, in short, are universities so appallingly bad at making their own case and putting the record straight? Why are they so reluctant to gather and disseminate the information that would balance the picture? And indeed, why are universities so bad at demonstrating that they are willing to tackle under-performance and abuse of position in those very few cases where it occurs?
Universities are rightly keen to publicise their achievements and successes, but when it comes to explaining their performance more generally they prefer to stay below the radar. This won’t do any more. There are too many sceptics out there with half understood or plain wrong information. It is time for university communications departments to step out of the shadows and make a much more persuasive case.